RHODES: Was death sentence commuted because of vice-regal visit?

Herbert D. Smith Crown Attorney. John Rhodes photo

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It was a Saturday evening in November 1913. Chatham Police Chief Tom Groves was standing on a street corner talking to Const. Fred Lucas when a man named Jim Conyers walked up to them and said, “I’ve been stabbed.”

Once at the hospital it was determined that Conyers had been stabbed six times, with one of the punctures being to his abdomen, and it was this wound that caused his death a few days later.

Before he died he told the police what had happened.

While sitting in Green’s Barber Shop on King Street, Conyers had become involved in an argument with an American named Frank Smith and a local man named Currie. Moments later Smith and Currie left the barbershop and Conyers thought the matter to be concluded. It was not.

When Conyers left the barbershop he was immediately attacked and in the altercation Smith stabbed Conyers several times.

The two men were later taken into custody and bound over for trial on Feb. 14, 1914 before Mr. Justice Falconbridge.

At the trial H. D. Smith acted for the Crown while J. A. McNevin represented Frank Smith, and J. M. Pike appeared for Currie.

Currie was found to be innocent while Smith was convicted of murder and sentenced to be hanged at the Kent County Jail on May 11, 1914.

It was not until the morning of April 30, 1914, just two weeks before the scheduled execution, that Smith’s punishment was commuted to life in prison.

News of the reduced sentence was received by Kent County Sheriff John Gemmel in the form of a telegram signed by the Under Secretary of State, Thomas Mulver, advising Gemmel of the change.

Gemmill went immediately to the jail, clutching the message in his hand.

“You will not die on the gallows, Frank,” said the sheriff.

“That’s good,” replied the prisoner.

No doubt the commutation was due in part to the work of defence lawyer J. A. McNevin who had exerted a huge effort on Frank Smith’s behalf, but there were those who thought there was more to it than that.

The Governor General of Canada was due in Chatham on May 13, 1914 and it was felt that his regal appearance here would have been overshadowed by an execution.

Whatever the reason, the previously condemned man was not questioning it.

The prosecutor in the case, Herbert D Smith, was a member of an outstanding Kent County family. His grandfather had served in the British Army during the American Revolutionary War and his father, Dr. Jacob Smith, had been the first Reeve of Ridgetown (1877) and Warden of Kent (1880).

H. D. Smith was born at Ridgetown in 1866 and became a lawyer in the latter 1880s.

He practised in Ridgetown and became a Crown Attorney in 1902. In 1909 he was Crown Prosecutor for Chatham.

Smith, like many educated men of his time, was interested in the military and was commissioned as a Lieutenant in the 24th Kents under Col. John Brown Rankin. When Smith retired, in 1938, he was Commander of the Regiment.

During the First World War, as Lieutenant Colonel, he commanded Military District No. 1, London.

At the conclusion of the war, Smith returned to Chatham and his legal work and was named King’s Council in 1922.

He contributed much to Chatham’s development, particularly to the growth of the educational system.

He was, for several terms, a member of the board of education and was its chairman in 1932.

  1. D. Smith died at Chatham on Nov. 2, 1938.

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